Middle East

UN inquiry says Israel and Hamas have both committed war crimes since October 7

By Sugam Pokharel, Jessie Yeung and Jomana Karadsheh, CNN

CNN  — 

A United Nations inquiry into the first few months of the war in Gaza has found both Israel and Hamas committed war crimes and grave violations of international law, in the body’s first in-depth investigation into the October 7 attacks and the ensuing conflict.

The damning reports released Wednesday, which cover events up to the end of 2023, paint an alarming picture of both sides routinely disregarding international law in a devastating conflict that has now raged for more than eight months, bitterly dividing global opinion and sending tensions soaring across the Middle East. The findings were strongly disputed by Israel.

The United Nations Commission of Inquiry’s reports begin on October 7, the day Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups launched a murder and kidnapping spree in southern Israel which killed more than 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and saw some 250 people taken hostage.

War crimes cited by the commission that day included intentionally directing attacks against civilians, murder or willful killing, torture, inhuman or cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity, and taking hostages, including children.

The massacres that day prompted Israel to declare war on Hamas and launch an assault on Gaza that has destroyed much of the heavily populated enclave and killed more than 37,000 people, according to Gaza health authorities.

Palestinian militants drive a captured Israeli military vehicle in Gaza City on October 7, 2023, after the attacks on Israel.

In the first 2.5 months of the conflict, the commission found, Israel committed war crimes as well as crimes against humanity – the latter defined as a widespread, systemic attack directed at a civilian population. Israel’s alleged war crimes include starvation, arbitrary detention, and killing and maiming “tens of thousands of children.”

Both Israel and Hamas committed sexual violence and torture, and intentionally attacked civilians, according to the reports, which span more than 200 pages.

The commission said its findings were based on interviews with victims and witnesses, thousands of open-source items verified through forensic analysis, hundreds of submissions, satellite imagery, forensic medical reports and media coverage, including several key CNN investigations.

CNN is reaching out Hamas for comment.

In response to the report, Israel accused the fact-finding mission of “attempting to justify” Hamas’ actions, of showing “systematic anti-Israeli discrimination,” and contextualizing the attacks “through the lens of the Palestinian narrative.”

Israel’s mission to the UN said Wednesday that the report did not mention continuous rocket fire on the country and claimed that it “outrageously and repugnantly attempts to draw a false equivalence between IDF (Israel Defense Forces) soldiers and Hamas terrorists with regards to acts of sexual violence,” adding that the Israeli military conducts itself in accordance to international law, including international humanitarian law.

The new reports released Wednesday add to previous allegations made against Israel by other major international bodies.

The International Criminal Court announced last month it was seeking arrest warrants for several top Hamas and Israeli leaders, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

At the time, both Hamas and Israel decried the charges – with Hamas describing it as an attempt to “equate victims with aggressors,” and Netanyahu calling it a “political outrage.”

And in February, the Israeli military denied accusations by UN experts of human rights violations against Palestinian girls and women in Gaza and the West Bank – calling the claims “despicable and unfounded.”

October 7 attacks

The report examined Hamas’ actions during the October 7 attacks, which it described as “unprecedented in scale in (Israel’s) modern history… invoking painful trauma of past persecution not only for Israeli Jews but for Jewish people everywhere.”

Hamas militants abducted hostages “without regard for age or gender,” with some shot at, killed, and paraded around, the report said. In particular, they targeted women, whose bodies were “used as victory trophies by male perpetrators… (and) put on public display, either on the streets of the Gaza Strip or online,” it found.

The commission said it had “documented evidence of sexual violence” carried out by Palestinian armed groups in several locations in southern Israel on October 7.

The commission had also reviewed rape testimonies collected by journalists and Israeli police but said it was unable to independently verify these due to lack of access to the victims or crime sites, and because Israel obstructed its investigations.

The report authors singled out the toll on Israeli children – many of whom witnessed the murders of their parents and siblings, and were targeted for abduction.

Israeli forces inflicting ‘maximum damage’

In Israel’s subsequent attack on Hamas, the commission wrote, its forces aimed to inflict “maximum damage” without taking enough precautions – which led to a staggering death toll in Gaza, devastating injuries, and destruction of civilian infrastructure.

“The deliberate use of heavy weaponry by Israeli security forces with large destructive capabilities in densely populated areas constitutes an intentional and direct attack on the civilian population, particularly affecting women and children,” the commission said.

It also referenced CNN reporting that found that nearly half of the air-to-ground munitions Israel used in Gaza were unguided, meaning they were less precise and posed a greater threat to civilians in the densely populated strip.

Palestinians inspect the destruction around residential buildings following Israeli air strikes in the Rafah refugee camp in southern Gaza on December 1, 2023.
Palestinians mourn their relatives, killed in an overnight Israeli strike on the Al-Maghazi refugee camp, during a mass funeral at the Al-Aqsa hospital in Gaza on December 25, 2023.

Asked for comment at the time, IDF spokesperson Nir Dinar told CNN: “We do not address the type of munitions used.”

The UN’s report cited two other CNN investigations that showed Israeli forces intentionally killing civilians who posed no threat, often along evacuation routes and in designated safe areas.

The siege of Gaza represents a “collective punishment against the civilian population,” according to the UN report – which accused Israel of withholding critical goods like water, food, electricity, fuel and humanitarian aid for “strategic and political gains.”

Sexual violence and inflammatory rhetoric

The report detailed allegations of Israeli forces carrying out sexual violence in both Gaza and the Israel-occupied West Bank – intended to drive home “the subordination of an occupied people.”

Victims were allegedly interrogated or abused while naked or partially dressed, blindfolded, and made to kneel or keep their hands tied behind their backs, the report found.

Many were forced to strip in public and walk while being sexually harassed, with their family members forced to watch. While both men and women were victims of sexual violence, men and boys were targeted in particular.

The report also highlighted the inflammatory rhetoric used by senior Israeli officials, including the president and prime minister, which the UN commission said amounted to incitement and “may constitute other serious international crimes.”

Some Israeli officials had called for “violence and the killing of Palestinians, the erasure of the Gaza Strip, vengeance, collective punishment, noting that there are no innocent civilians in the Gaza Strip, planning for new Israeli settlements on the rubble of the Gaza Strip and calling for the removal of Palestinians from Gaza to third states,” the report said, without attributing to specific officials.

Some of the most extreme statements in Israel’s deeply divided cabinet have come from far-right members like National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich.

They are often condemned by other cabinet members like Benny Gantz, who resigned on Sunday, and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

UN-Israel tensions

The commission, which was set up by the UN Human Rights Council in 2021 after an 11-day conflict that killed more than 200 people in both Israel and Gaza, said Israel had obstructed its access to both Israel and Palestinian territories during the investigation.

It said Israeli officials had barred medical professionals and other personnel from speaking to investigators, and did not respond to any UN requests for information.

The commission also requested information from the Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank, it said. The Palestinian Authority provided “extensive comments” and indicated they would welcome a visit by the UN, the commission said.

Hamas, a rival to the Palestinian Authority, governs Gaza and it was not clear from the report whether the authors had also contacted the militant group.

In December, Israeli Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan accused the UN’s Human Rights Council of being “morally distorted” and antisemitic. Erdan called its investigation “100% biased against Israel,” and said Israel would not cooperate.

The UN and Israel’s long-strained relations have sunk to a historic low in recent months, with senior UN officials highly critical of Israel’s war conduct in Gaza.

The UN Security Council – which Israel is not part of – tried for months after October 7 to pass a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire. The US, Israel’s closest ally and its main weapons supplier, consistently used its veto power to block such a move – until it finally abstained in March, allowing the resolution to pass, which was immediately lambasted by Israel.

And last month, a non-binding vote at the UN General Assembly showed overwhelming international support for an independent Palestinian state – leaving the United States and Israel’s allies isolated. Israel and the US maintain that a Palestinian state should only be established through a negotiated settlement.

An employee at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) lowers the UN flag on the roof of the organization's regional offices in the Lebanese capital Beirut on November 13, 2023.

Another sticking point is UNRWA, the UN’s agency for Palestinian refugees, which plays a central role in feeding and sheltering hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees.

Israeli officials have long criticized UNRWA, accusing it of diverting aid to Hamas as well as having Hamas members in its ranks. More than a dozen countries suspended funding to the agency after Israel accused at least 12 UNRWA staffers of being involved in the October 7 terrorist attacks. Most have since resumed funding.

In March, the agency accused Israel of detaining and torturing some of its staffers, coercing them into making false confessions about the agency’s ties to Hamas.

In recent months, UNRWA has faced threats, harassment and violence perpetrated by Israelis – with the East Jerusalem headquarters set on fire while staff were inside.

CNN cannot confirm the allegations by Israel or UNRWA.

In their report on Wednesday, the commission authors urged Israel to immediately call a ceasefire, for Hamas to release hostages, for Israel to end its practices of sexual abuse against Palestinians, and to allow access for further investigations.

“It is imperative that all those who have committed crimes be held accountable,” said commission chair Navi Pillay.

“The only way to stop the recurring cycles of violence, including aggression and retribution by both sides, is to ensure strict adherence to international law.”

This story has been updated.

CNN’s Benjamin Brown and Nadeen Ebrahim contributed to this report.

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